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Tricksters And Wonder-Folk

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



The telling of animal stories leads naturally to the formation of groups of tales in which certain animals assume constant and characteristic rôles, and attain to the rank of mythic beings. The Brer Rabbit stories, made famous as negro tales by Joel Chandler Harris, appear as a veritable saga cycle among the Cherokee, from whom they are doubtless borrowed. There can be little question that "Brer Rabbit" — vain, tricky, malicious — is a southern and humorous debasement of the Great Hare, the Algonquian demiurge and trickster; while the Turtle, also important in northern cosmogony, is represented by the put-upon, but shifty, "Brer Terrapin" of the southern tales. The "tar baby" by which the thieving Rabbit was tricked and caught appears in Cherokee lore as a "tar wolf," set as a trap; the Rabbit, coming upon it by nights, kicks it and is stuck fast; the wolf and the fox find him caught, and debate how he shall be put to death; the Rabbit pleads with them not to cast him into the thicket to perish, which accordingly they do, and thus he makes off. The escape of an animal from his captors through pretending fear of his natural element and thus inducing them to throw him into it is a frequent incident in animal tales, while the "tar baby" story has variants, as Mooney says, "not only among the Cherokee, but also in Mexico, Washington, and southern Alaska — wherever, in fact, the pińon or the pine supplies enough gum to be molded into a ball for Indian uses." Another legend found from coast to coast, and known to Cherokee and Creek, is the story of how the Rabbit dines the Bear (the "imitation of the host" theme, as it is called, which has endless variants throughout the continent) : "The Bear invited the Rabbit to dine with him. They had beans in the pot, but there was no grease for them, so the Bear cut a slit in his side and let the oil run out until they had enough to cook the dinner. The Rabbit looked surprised, and thought to himself, `That's a handy way. I think I'll try that.' When he started home he invited the Bear to come and take dinner with him. When the Bear came the Rabbit said, `I have beans for dinner, too. Now I'll get grease for them.' So he took a knife and drove it into his side, but instead of oil, a stream of blood gushed out and he fell over nearly dead. The Bear picked him up and had hard work to tie up the wound and stop the bleeding. Then he scolded him, `You little fool, I'm large and strong and lined all over with fat; the knife don't hurt me; but you're small and lean, and you can't do such things.

The world is peopled, however, with other wonder-folk besides the magic animals, and many of these mythic beings belong to ancient and wide-spread systems. Thus, the Cherokee Flint (Tawiskala) is obviously the evil twin of the north-ern Iroquois cosmogony; and although he has ceased to be remembered as a demiurgic Titan, his evil and unsociable nature remains the same. In Choctaw tales, the Devil who is drowned by a maiden whom he has lured from her home, and whose body breaks into stony fragments, is apparently the same being. The Ice Man, with his northerly winds and sleety rains, who quenched the fire that threatened to consume the world; the North who kept the South for Bride until the hot sun forced him to release her; Untsaiyi, the Gambler, who games away his life, and flees to the world's end, where he is bound and pinned by the two brothers who have pursued him, there to writhe until the world's end — all these are tales with familiar heroes, known in many tribes and lands.

Nor are the tribes of magic folk different in kind from those found elsewhere. There are the helpful spirit warriors, who dwell in rock and hill, the Nunnehi; there are the Little People, fairies good and evil; there are the Tsundigewi, the Dwarfs who lived in nests scooped from the sand, and who fought with and were overcome by the cranes, the Water-Cannibals, who live upon human flesh, especially that of children; the Thunderers, whose steed is the great Uktena; the horned snake with a diamond in his forehead, and to whose cave a young man was lured by the Thunder's sister, only to find, when he returned to his folk to tell his story and die, that the night he had spent there comprised long years. Kanati, Lucky Hunter, the husband of Selu, Corn, and Tsulkalu, the slant-eyed giant, held dominion over the animals and were gods of the hunter; while the different animals, each in its kind, were under the supervision of the animal Elders, such as the Little Deer, invisible to all except the greatest hunters, the White Bear, to whom wounded bears go to be cured of their hurts, Tlanuwa, the Hawk impervious to arrows, Dakwa, the great fish which swallowed the fisherman and from which he cut himself out, and the man-eating Leech, as large as a house.

Such is the general complexion of the Cherokee pantheon — hordes or kinds of nature-powers, with a few mightier personalities emerging above them, embryonic gods. Altogether similar are the conceptions of the Muskhogean tribes — giants and dwarfs, fairies and wizards, now human, now animal in shape, peopling hill and stream, forest and bayou.



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